This paper aims to compare Chinese and Iranian cyberspace to highlight the excessive traffic analysis, surveillance, filtering and the resulting effects on anonymity and freedom of expression in the borderless society of the Internet. The paradoxical contrasts between these two different states provide much scope for analysis and discourse, particularly in light of recent media attention. As has been shown by the government crackdowns in the aftermath of the Iranian election of 2009, and China’s recent dispute with Google, cyberspace is highly contested by government’s seeking to harness digital economic and e-business benefits whilst restricting online dissent and political activism. Interdisciplinary by its very nature, this paper will investigate the ongoing ‘cat and mouse’ game between the authoritarian governments and how tools such as TOR, Mixminion, Incognito and Anonymizer are helping dissenters to hide their identity and stay anonymous. The multifaceted approach to the research consisted of semi-structured interviews with key actors, interviews with Iranian and Chinese citizens currently in the UK, focus groups and textual analysis of websites and blogs. This paper has shown the increase in traffic analysis and surveillance in both Iran and China. On the other hand, in this digital “cat and mouse” game, protesters persistently get their message out and access forbidden and filtered sites. The various tools used to bypass filters and restrictions have been outlined and briefly assessed, and the role of the new digital media landscape in shaping the political debates has been discussed. The Chinese government has been very successful in creating a society in which the state not only controls cyberspace for high e-commerce growth, but also uses it as a tool for reinforcing social control. From the interviews with Chinese citizens it was clear that although they were aware of the traffic analysis and filtering and surveillance, most were unconcerned, even considering it normal. In contrast, the Iranian citizens interviewed were extremely unhappy with the increasing trend towards surveillance, filtering and the limit on connection speed within Iran. The Iranian government has not been able to subtly enforce its control over cyberspace.
Unlike China where there are large e-transaction activities and huge online commercial interests, Iran still rely heavily on traditional commerce (Bazaar) and lacks advanced IT infra structure, expertise and software tools for traffic analysis and filtering; instead they have relied on slowing the entire Internet or bringing the system to a halt completely to deter protesters.
Keywords: privacy, traffic analysis, anonymity, freedom, cyberspace, China, Iran, tor, mixminion, incognito, anonymizer, anonymous, surveillance, filtering, ethics, “Open Net Initiative”, ONI, bbc Persian, voa, gooyanews, jingjing, chacha, panopticon, censorship, e-business, golden shield, Reporters Sans Frontiers,rsf.
Cyberspace, a term coined by the author William Gibson (1980) in his novel Neuromancer has now become a universal term to describe anything and everything related to computers, information technologies and the Internet. Although Batty (1997) provides quite a clear definition of what cyberspace is, “interactivity between remote computers” (Batty, 1997: 343), it is used in this paper more generally to describe the Internet and digital media technologies. Iran and China both employ some of the most aggressive cyberspace censorship and surveillance programs (ONI, 2009a). In Iran, sites that are blocked are deemed “Immoral”, in China, “Subversive” (Tait, 2006b). Both States control and monitor their networks, and employ extensive, multifaceted surveillance aimed at controlling information and preventing dissent. Both Iran and China have recently been challenged by the new possibilities created by the growth of the Internet and digital media in recent years, and have adopted similar responses in order to deal with the threats to control. Iran and China have experienced rapid growth in the uptake of the Internet; China now has the highest number of Internet users in the world, around 300 million according to recent estimates (ONI, 2009a) and Iran has the most Internet users in the Middle East, approaching 30 million according to recent estimates (ONI, 2009b). Iran has one of the most vibrant and diverse Blogging communities; Farsi (Persian) is reportedly the fourth most popular Blogging language on the Internet (Rigby, 2006). Over the course of the last decade, Blogs have become one of the primary outlets for Iranians to express themselves with less fear of repression or political repercussions. This last refuge for free speech and free thought in Iran has now been compromised by the government’s increased restrictions and surveillance. Consequently, Iranian and Chinese dissents are becoming more intelligent and sophisticated in using open source software tools to bypass filters and monitoring stations and are able to transmit and receive information online despite restrictions.
2. Censorship and Surveillance
Michel Foucault’s (1977) reinterpretation of Bentham’s (1785) Panopticon in ‘Discipline and Punish’ provides the theoretical grounding for many theorists when approaching the issue of surveillance. Using Bentham’s idealised prison as a metaphor Foucault considers the methods employed by society to encourage discipline and normalising behaviours
“Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behaviour must be imposed, the panoptic schema may be used” (Foucault, 1977:205)
Although Foucault never wrote directly on the panoptic power of the Internet, many authors have taken his work and adapted his theories to shed light on emergent technologies (Tsui, 2003). Cyberspace has become a central discourse in recent thinking about the panopticon and its effects on society. The concept of the panopticon prison is reliant upon the uncertainty of being monitored, in effect normalizing behaviour causing the individual to exhibit ‘anticipatory conformity’. The Internet allows the state greater scope for surveillance, using computers to analyse data that in the past would have required a Stasi like organization and resources.
In Foucault’s (1978) own writings on Iran he was highly critical of Mohammed Shah Reza Pahlavi’s capitalist dictatorship and he wrote in praise of Islam, describing it as “a religion that gave to its people infinite resources to resist state power”. Foucault was particularly critical of the surveillance methods and disciplinary practices of the Shah and secret police, “The man with the iron hand is Moghadam, the leader of the SAVAK1” (Foucault, 1978).
Many critics have considered these writings to be flawed – a “miscalculation” or “not Foucauldian” (Afray and Anderson, 2005). Foucault’s prescience foresaw the importance of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, that it could “set the entire region afire” (Foucault, 1978), but failed to anticipate the Islamic government’s own misuse of power, instead optimistically hoping for a ‘spiritually enlightened’ government for the people. Censorship and surveillance are two tools used to control, normalise and limit behaviour (Foucault, 1977).
Censorship involves blocking access to information or restricting free speech. Surveillance involves monitoring individuals or organisations. In Iran, censored websites are deemed ‘Immoral’ and “unethical”, in China, ‘Subversive’. When Internet users in these countries attempt to access sites that have been restricted by the state, they are often confronted by a warning message. Furthermore, in China, Internet users are repeatedly confronted by images of ‘Jingjing’ and ‘Chacha’, the Internet police (Source: Wikipedia).
Ostertag (2009) highlights the important differences between censorship and surveillance, particularly in Iran. Whilst censorship is simply a matter of intercepting and blocking communications (a difficult task), surveillance and traffic analysis on the Internet allows the information trail to be reconstructed, often providing identities and locations of the source/destination of data packets. In Iran, there are many rumours of dissenters being tracked by their electronic trail, enabling the authorities to arrest or abduct people, which given Iran’s human rights record is very worrying.
Google (2010) recently expressed grave concerns over censorship and surveillance in China after a hacking attack on gmail accounts, particularly those involved in Human Rights in China:
“These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered- -combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.”
These images below show the difference between Google search results for Tiananmen Square in China and the UK. As is evident, the images of ‘Tank Man’ are omitted.
3. The Internet in Iran
Iran has witnessed a rapid growth in Internet usage in the last 15 years, and it continues to increase at a dramatic rate, the highest rate of growth in the Middle East,
“Internet use in Iran was first promoted by the government to provide an alternative means of scientific and technological advancement during the troubled economic period that followed the Iran-Iraq War. Contrary to expectations at the time, the Islamic Republic originally welcomed the Internet by allowing commercial and educational sectors to access it without interference. Whereas in China the technology was largely developed by the state in the form of an intra- governmental communications network, Iran’s first experience with the internet occurred within the university system.” (Rahimi, 2003:102).
Although statistics vary, ONI (2009b) estimates that in 2008, approximately 35 percent of the population of Iran are now online; considering that around 70% of Iranian population is under 30 years of age, prospect for Internet literacy and usage remains high. The Iranian Governments policies regarding the Internet, demonstrate the paradoxical desire to prevent free speech whilst simultaneously harnessing the Internet for economic growth (ONI, 2009b). In October 2006, the government began enforcing restrictions on bandwidth to 128 kilobytes per second, in order to restrict access to multimedia content, although some Universities and Business retain high speed access, “Iran is the only country in the world to have instituted an explicit cap on Internet access speed for households” (ibid). The importance of the Internet in Iran became the focus of much media attention following the infamous elections of 2009 (Ashraf, 2009). Sites such as Youtube and Twitter enabled protesters to document the aggressive and brutal actions of the Iranian Government in attempting to quell the protests. Although the Iranian Government attempted to stifle this avalanche of images and stories, by restricting bandwidth and blocking access, the information was nevertheless able to escape in large quantities and the idea of “ one person one reporter” was invented by the Green Movement, the opposition group(ibid).
4. The Internet in China
China now has the highest number of Internet users in the world, some 300 million Internet users, with almost 100 million high speed broadband connections (ONI, 2009a). There is still a digital divide between rural and urban areas in China, but the Chinese Government has implemented policies to further develop Internet infrastructure. Most notably, the Chinese Government has been developing the “Golden Shield Project”, commonly known as the “Great Firewall of China”. This “multimillion dollar Golden Shield project [has] turned the Chinese Internet into Big Brother-net” (Tian, 2006:8). Although it is by no means impenetrable, the ‘Great Firewall’ has allowed the Chinese Government to retain much control over its cyberspace.
5. Internet Filtering
The most comprehensive examinations of censorship and surveillance via traffic analysis in cyberspace have been undertaken by the Open Net Initiative (ONI), who publishes country specific profiles. “Access Denied” (Deibart et al, 2008) published by principle investigators of the Open Net Initiative; Deibart, Palfrey, Rohozinski and Zittrain, details the various methods for analysis of Internet filtering, showing the varying degrees and methods by which states manage and control content. Internet filtering in Iran has been mostly concerned with blocking access to pornography, political blogs and news site such as BBC Persian. Gooyanews.com and VOA Persian service whereas Chinese filters place greater importance on restricting politically sensitive searches, although pornography is also somewhat restricted.
Similar work on Internet filtering has been conducted by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), which aims to encourage freedom of the press and free speech. Their stated goals are to, “defend journalists and media assistants imprisoned or persecuted for doing their job and exposes the mistreatment and torture of them in many countries. Fight against censorship and laws that undermine press freedom” (RSF, 2009).
Iran and China are two of thirteen countries deemed
“enemies of the internet” by Reporters Sans Frontiers; “Iran was among 13 countries branded “enemies of the internet” last month by the human rights group, Reporters Without Borders, which cited state-sanctioned blocking of websites and the widespread intimidation and jailing of bloggers. Critics accuse Iran of using filtering technology to censor more sites than any country apart from China. Until now, targets have been mainly linked to opposition groups or those deemed “immoral” under Iran’s Islamic legal code.” (Tait, 2006b)
Julien Pain (2007), head of the Internet Freedom Desk at RSF, shows how dictatorships are becoming more adept at utilising the Internet; whereas in the past the best way to monitor a journalist was to put them under direct surveillance by a police officer, now it is far simpler to use computers to track individuals deemed subversive. An Iranian blogger, Omidreza Mirsayafi, 29, convicted of insulting the Islamic Republic leaders died in jail after taking a drug overdose in March 2009 in the notorious Evin prison; many more are still in prison for having anti government bloggs [52, 53].
6. Anonymity – Tor, Incognito, Mixminion and Anonymizer
Various software tools are available to allow users in countries where Internet traffic is monitored to bypass the surveillance operation by hiding the identity of the sender/receiver. In countries that are attempting to restrict and control the internet, the use of proxies and anonymizer tools can help to protect users’ online identity. Proxy servers, gateway applications that are used to route Internet access from within a firewall by opening a socket on the server and allowing the connection to pass through, allow users to protect privacy and remain anonymous (Deibart et al, 2009).
Foremost amongst these software tools is TOR, (? _r=1 [Accessed 8 July 2010]